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Monona Bay 1900

Monona Bay (1900 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-51877

Bridge Over Monona Bay

One of the first railroads to reach Madison from the south, in the 1850s, was built across Monona Bay instead of taking a more circuitous route around Lake Monona. A second followed; Madison is one of the few places in the world where two railroad tracks cross each other over water. For more than a century, until the construction of John Nolen Drive, the railroad causeways and bridges provided the only shortcut from the south side of the lake into Madison. They proved to be a deadly path.

When the train from Chicago arrived at the depot at 11 p.m. on June 1, 1867, “fresh warm blood was found on the cowcatcher. Backtracking, a piece of skull was found on the track over Lake Monona.” The body of Thomas Lawrence, a fisherman, was discovered floating in the lake. While creeping on hands and knees over the railroad bridge in the dark to his home on the shore of the lake, he had been struck by a train and killed.

In an unbelievable coincidence, his wife Charlotte was also killed by a train on the same track on November 5, 1887, while walking into the city. She was struck by an engine and caboose on the Chicago & Northwestern Road and was thrown off the track and pulled dead from the water. A strong southerly wind was blowing at the time and enveloped the cab in so much smoke that the engineer was unable to see the track or the victim.

At 9:20 p.m. on July 23, 1899, “the worst railroad wreck which has occurred in this vicinity for many years took place near Monona Station, on the southern shore of Lake Monona, just across from the city. Two men were killed, another seriously hurt, and a dozen freight cars transformed into a broken mass of wood and iron, piled high into the air and extending entirely across the three tracks… The noise made by the smashing was clearly heard all over the city, and hundreds of people walked across to the scene of the wreck, which made a weird picture in the moonlight. Some of the cars were piled three deep on top of each other. Twelve cars were wrecked.” The last 25 cars had separated from the rest of the train coming into town, then picked up speed as it rolled down a hill. When the front section of the train stopped for the crossing over the lake the rear section plowed into it. One of the victims, Albert Rama, had shipped his trunk on the train, then jumped a boxcar to “beat his way instead of paying the fare.” His brother Richard also died.

At one time there was a hobo camp near the water tank just south of the shore of Monona Bay. On May 7, 1910, an itinerant umbrella mender “was butchered in a drunken brawl.” Railroad men reported witnessing two umbrella menders fighting three tramps. The 50-year-old victim was later found with a long cut in his throat, and more on his back and chin. He had also been robbed, and had no identification. He survived the fight long enough to wind an undergarment around his neck in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding.

Mark Gajewski